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After a fire in December ravaged the Lao Buddhist Temple in Westminster, Colorado, the Laoist population of Westminster now seeks to rebuild their temple that is at the heart of their community. According to a story yesterday in the Denver Post, plans to reconstruct the temple have received new urgency since the temple’s head monk, Ounkham Vuennasack, was recently diagnosed with brain cancer. The community hopes they can rebuild fast enough so that Vuennasack will be able to see his temple open once again, although Maly Khanthaphixay, whose father was one of the founders of the temple, says that it may take years.
Khanthaphixay told Hyperallergic that nearly everything was destroyed in the fire, including almost all of the temple’s precious artifacts. Only 28 of the temple’s 100 buddhist sculptures made of copper, bronze and gold were salvaged, while a 15-foot Buddha sculpture donated by a temple in Thailand was completely melted by the fire. Ancient bamboo scrolls of the Buddha’s teachings, relics that have been passed down through generations of monks, were also lost. The temple was home to more contemporary works as well, like a panel painting of the buddha’s life by a Thai artist named Pan. While Khanthaphixay mentioned that they have asked the artist to recreate his work in the new temple, most of the other artifacts are irreplaceable.
The Westminster Fire Department claimed that the fire was an accident, caused by faulty wiring in the temple, which was built in 1989. Khanthaphixay noted that they are now fighting with the city to get a new license for the property so that they can begin building. In the meantime, the monks have been placed in temporary living quarters while the temple has tried to maintain certain religious practices during the upheaval. Khanthaphixay explained that in Lao Buddhism, women are not allowed to have direct contact with the monks, so it is important that they occupy a separate living space.
“Our head monk has said that first we must rebuild the meditation room so that people can gather there,” said Khanthaphixay when I asked her about plans for the reconstruction. “We would love to have it ready for our New Year, which happens at the end of March or beginning of April depending on the lunar calendar, but I just don’t see that happening.”
The temple is Theravadin, the oldest surviving Buddhist school and the predominate religion in Laos as well as most of continental Southeast Asia. The temple also welcomed visiting monks and served as a research library with 100-year-old books on the history of Laos and Buddhism.
Khanthaphixay stressed the importance of restoring the temple’s historical resources so that first generation Laotian Americans can learn about Buddhism without losing sight of ancient traditions along the way. Donations have been pouring in from the community, but the temple still needs to raise much more money to cover the costs of rebuilding, which Khanthaphixay estimates could reach $600,000.